On the hillside just above and to the left of my house was a level spot that had once held an old barn. During WWII when I was very little, my grandmother kept Old Pied, the milk cow, there. After the war when my dad came home, Old Pied disappeared and bottles of store bought milk appeared on our table. I remember not liking the flavor of store bought milk.
With Old Pied’s disappearance, the old barn was torn down. There would eventually be a garden planted on that flat fertile spot but first my Granny Ninna planted red clover. I got to help. She told me the red clover would help the dirt grow. Those are her exact words, “Red clover will help the dirt grow.” I believed Granny Ninna’s every word. Still do.
By that summer I was seven years old, had completed second grade and was deep into Nancy Drew books. It was a quiet summer, my mother was expecting my baby brother in the fall and I hadn’t yet started roaming the mountains looking for medicinal plants with my great Aunt Bett. I spent a lot of time helping Nancy Drew solve mysteries and I carried my book of the moment with me wherever I went.
Most of the time wherever I went wasn’t very far away but up on the hillside above my house there was a gnarled old apple tree in the far back corner of our red clover patch. From my favorite spot beneath the apple tree, I could see over the roof of my house but nobody could see me. It was the perfect spot for helping Nancy solve mysteries all day long.
I could hear very well if anybody called for me, and I could stand up and see over the hillside and onto the back porch anytime I was called, so it wasn’t as if I were hiding from anyone. The drone of honeybees floating above the red clover, the song of birds wafting from the limbs above my head, the tinkle of water making its way over rocks down the nearby mountain stream; those were the only sounds I heard there in that holler where I lived. It was a very quiet spot in the field of red clover.
“Get outta there! Them bees gonna sting you.”
I sat straight up, put my book to my side and looked around. I could not see a soul. My knees inched their way up till I could put my arms around them and I held on tight. The bees kept buzzing and the birds kept singing; I could still hear the tinkling water.
“Ninna? Aunt Bett?’ I whispered. I knew better, it had sounded like a boy. The seconds crept past and just as soon as I relaxed the hold around my knees, I heard it again.
“Them bees is in yore hair. They’re gonna sting you! Get outta there!”
I knew enough about bees to know they weren’t going to sting me when they were happily sipping pollen and I was being very still. Even so, I thought I might ought to stand up and see the ghost who was talking to me. So I did.
I knew the sound was coming from below but not from my back porch. I slowly scooted my back up the trunk of the apple tree and just as slowly turned my eyes from side to side. I couldn’t see anything. The birds were still singing, the bees were still humming and I realized I had an apple in my hand. I had absolutely no control over the hand that threw that apple in the direction of the ghostly voice. I heard it thunk as it hit something. Then silence. Whatever it was, I just knew I’d killed it.
After a few minutes I slithered back down the tree trunk, picked up Nancy Drew and the Bungalow Mystery and continued to read in my bed of red clover.
I didn’t know much about red clover at that time. I learned a lot about it later from Aunt Bett. She was my mother’s aunt but I didn’t know the difference when I was trailing behind her as she climbed the southern Appalachians in southeast Kentucky in search of medicinal plants. Aunt Bett had a streak of Cherokee running through her and it must have been a mile wide because she knew everything there was to know about healing plants. She told me her learnin’ had been handed down and handed down and now it was time for it to be handed down to me. She told me I already knew a lot since I knew how to keep still when bees were buzzing around me. That’s what led her to tell me about red clover; she knew I spent a lot of time in the patch above my house.
Red clover, Trifolium pratense, is from the pea family. It’s among the largest of its species. It reaches heights of nearly 3 feet so I was well hidden when I sat in the patch of red clover. The leaves consist of three oval leaflets , each one usually carrying a whitish V-shaped marking. Some folks call it trefoil. It blooms from May to late fall and the blooms are large, round and a rosy pink that fades to white at the base.
Aunt Bett told me of red clover’s magic powers. Ancients credited it with the ability to protect against evil spirits. If wanderers were traveling into unknown territory, they carried a sprig of clover as protection. If they found a four- leaf clover, that was even better. When Aunt Bett told me that, I started collecting every four-leaf clover that I could find.
Aunt Bett said that red clover tea was used for coughs and especially for whooping cough. She also used it for sore throats and colds. Her ancestors made a salve of it and used it on burns. In springtime, those same ancestors ate the leaves of the plant and since it is of the pea family, that made sense to me. I don’t remember ever eating it but I do remember using it as a salve occasionally. And of course, I drank red clover tea.
I don’t know that red clover is used medicinally very much anymore, though I have read that a tea is still made from its flowerheads and used as a sedative. But Aunt Bett told me one more thing about red clover and I’ve always remembered it. Red clover is used in agriculture as a soil improving cover crop, a source of nectar for honeybees and as grazing and fodder for cattle. I guess the former is why Ninna said it helped the dirt to grow.
I did a little research before I wrote this article, not that I disbelieved Aunt Bett or Granny Ninna but because I wanted to know if more studies had been done about red clover. I found that no side effects had been reported from its use. However, it has proved to be somewhat toxic in cattle if they ingest late season or spoiled red clover hay. I suspect the same would be true if persons ingested it. It is an interesting plant and beneficial to the survival of the honeybee. I made chains of clover and wore them as jewelry. I wore them as crowns too. A patch of it growing high on a hillside also makes a nice hiding place for a little girl.
I didn’t know all this that summer day when I heard the ghost voice. I only knew it was a quiet place for sharing adventures with Nancy Drew. As I remember, I heard the voice several times that day. It always said the same thing: “Get outta there, them bees is in your hair, they’re gonna sting you!”
I seem to remember having no control over my arm, since it continued to fast pitch apples down the hillside in the direction of the ghostly voice every time I heard it. But I never saw a soul, only the buzzing bees and the birds that sang in the apple tree.
As often happened on summer evenings, Aunt Bett joined my family for supper. Nancy and I came down the hillside and entered the kitchen from the back porch. Aunt Bett was waiting for me and in her hands she had the remains of several pieces of smashed apples. My breath stopped in my throat and stayed there while she said, “Tommy was doing some weedin’ for us down in the lower garden today. Seems he got hit with a few flyin’ apples. Now there ain’t no apple trees anywhere near that lower garden, so do you know where them apples come from?”
Whoosh! The air trapped in my throat tripped all over the words that were rushing to get out.
“Aunt Bett, did Tommy have Ol’ Spot with him?” Ol’ Spot was Unca Doc’s blond collie dog.
“I reckon he did, since that dog goes everwhere Tommy goes.”
“I thought he was a ghost, Aunt Bett, I sure thought he was a ghost spyin’ on me up in the clover patch. I didn’t mean him no harm, Aunt Bett, I sure didn’t mean him no harm! He musta been talkin’ to Ol’ Spot when I thought he was talkin’ to me.”
I reckon I spent the last hour before dark that day pickin’ up a bucketful of apples to take to Tommy come mornin’. And I reckon he must have accepted the apology that went with them because that evenin’ when I was visitin’ with Aunt Bett at her house, he walked across the road carryin’ a whole mess of hot apple fritters his mama made for us. Every time I taste a bite of apple fritters, I still think of Tommy, the ghost boy. I remember seeing a small bruise right on his cheekbone beneath his eye. That apple must have gained speed after it left my hand and flew downhill.
Nancy Drew and I solved a lot of mysteries that summer but I reckon it was Aunt Bett who solved the Mystery of the Ghost Boy.
The photos of the apple and the apple tree are from Wikipedia Creative Commons and are taken respectively by Krish Dular and Aghijit Tembhekar in Nepal, India.
The clover photos are also from Wiki Creative Commons, the bloom is by Tony Wills. The Red Clover is the national flower of Denmark and also the state flower of Vermont.
The Nancy Drew book photos are my own.
Facts about Red Clover were verified in the book Magic and Medicine of Plants, Readers Digest, 1989.